After Women's Suffrage
The Minute Women of Washington
by Shanna Stevenson
National League for Woman’s Service
In January, 1917 the National League for Woman’s Service was created from the Woman’s Department of the National Civic Federation readiness and relief activities. It was modeled on a similar group formed in Great Britain, the Voluntary Aid Detachments, and was formed at the National Security League Congress of Constructive Patriotism.
Generally, the NLWS was predicated on a military-type regimen of training and drilling. When unrestricted submarine warfare was initiated by Germany in January, 1917, the NLWS accelerated their plans to register women and prepare them to take the place of men that would be needed for fighting. The NLWS anticipated that they would be designated by the Council of National Defense as the official women’s home front administrators. But after making a proposal to the Council of Defense, they were rebuffed. Nevertheless the group determined to continue. Some members of the NLWS wore uniforms and used military designations. They also spearheaded a registration campaign. Unlike the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense, the NLWS was not dominated by pro-suffragists.3
The Washington chair for the NLWS was Mrs. Winfield (Susie) Smith who also chaired the State Division of the Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense (NCWD) and was a member of the leadership of the Woman’s Work Committee, Washington State Council of Defense (Minute Women). The latter group of women appear to be unique to Washington State since they were organized as a somewhat parallel group to the State Division of the National Council although part of the State Council of Defense, and eventually took over the work of the Woman’s Committee of the National Council in the state. There was considerable overlap among of the women involved in these three relief agencies in Washington:4
View a table showing membership overlap between the National League for Women’s Service, the Woman’s Committee, Washington State Council of Defense, and the State Division of the Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense.
In a report cited by Ida Clyde Clarke in 1918 regarding Washington activities for the NLWS, Mrs. Smith described the classes which were established to train women to take over positions of men joining the military including telegraphy, salesmanship, running elevators, general office work and classes in French; motor driving, cooking and canning, as well as preparing for Civil Service examinations. She also noted that women were being trained in the use of firearms as well as working to provide gifts for men in the military.5
NLWS in Washington focused their efforts in Social and Welfare, Home Economics, Motor, Home and Overseas Relief, General Service; Cooperation; Supplies and Publicity. They had branches in 34 towns and county auxiliaries with 88 organizations.6
In their report of Washington activities from 1917 to 1919, The Washington NLWS detailed their types of service including the prodigious amount of canning and jelly and jam making that benefited Camp Lewis near Tacoma, the coastal forts near Pt. Townsend, and the Navy yard at Bremerton. They provided hospitality through the Soldiers and Sailors Clubs.
Their work was often focused on Europe and the NLWS worked with the Belgian Relief and American Committee for Devastated France.7 One of the more interesting projects of the NLWS was the “re-chickening” of France and some branches sponsored whole chicken farms in France to aid in the food shortage there.
Many of the branches worked in providing clothing for Belgian refugees, particularly children. They collaborated with the Woman’s Section of the Navy Service League in knitting, not only for American soldiers and sailors, but also for needy overseas. The women also participated in the “kid glove” project in which they donated their kid gloves which were made into vests and jackets for American servicemen.8
They also participated in the NLWS efforts for food conservation and provided food during the influenza epidemic in 1918. In Spokane, women opened a special kitchen during the influenza epidemic and provided food for the Fort George Wright and city isolation hospitals. The women arranged for harvesters for fruit crops and met troop trains to provide fresh fruit particularly in Eastern Washington. The motor division often transported fruit and vegetables to the communal canning kitchens.
The NLWS operated their own “Hoover Kitchen” at Camp Lewis to prepare food and many of the branches adopted wards at Camp Lewis to provide for their needs. Funds for activities were raised through a White Elephant Shop in downtown Seattle. They sponsored a desk in New York for returning Washington servicemen at the end of the war.
Because some women acquired skills through NLWS training, they substituted for men in lumber mills and supplied workers during the Seattle General Strike in 1919.
In all, the Washington women of the NLWS raised $3,450.21 for the “re-chickening” of France and $8,771.95 in other funds. They also provided thousands of garments and hundred of pounds of canned fruits and vegetables along with canteen sandwiches and entertainment for soldiers and sailors.9
The women worked with the Red Cross, the National Committee for Woman’s Service in food pledge activities and with the state woman’s group in census work.10